Friday, 18 June 2010

The abolitionist approach: a British perspective (Part One of Two)

by Joe Sim
Among social scientists there seems to be considerable disillusionment, and, indeed, a turning away from the goal of abolition -more or less as if it were a youthful and confused prank from the late sixties which the middle aged and wise can hardly uphold. I have, however, never understood why a negative political trend -be it increased armaments or expanded prison systems - should lead one to conclude that the trend in question no longer constitutes a point of fundamental attack and final abolition from a radical position.
(Mathiesen, 1986, p. 84)
The title of this paper, 'The abolitionist approach: a British perspective',1 will probably seem like an anachronism to many. For those concerned with the daily grind of criminal justice and penal policy, abolitionism is likely to be regarded as an esoteric, academic luxury which is irrelevant to the delivery of penal services both to the confined and to the wider society. The British demand for 'facts' as opposed to historically, theoretically and philosophically grounded analysis, whether of an abolitionist nature or not, is as prominent in the prisons debate as it is in other social policy debates. A number of academics in the UK, no doubt, will have other, but no less critical views. Abolitionists are now regarded as sociological dinosaurs, unre-constituted hangovers from the profound but doomed schisms of the late 1960's, who are marginal to the 'real' intellectual questions of the 1990's. Like Marxism, abolitionism appears to have been left behind on the sandbank of history while the river of modernity - or as many intellectuals would have it, postmodernity - flows progressively forward producing wave after consumerist wave of choice, opportunity and desire. Social formations now need realistic economic and social policies in general, and penal policies in particular, to respond to the new times flooding the planet, which in turn require research that is relevant to the service orientation of the newly reformed state and its subject/customers both inside and outside the walls of the penitentiary.

Superficially, there appears to he strong sociological evidence to support this contention. Abolitionism, it seems, has failed to impact upon the direction of penal policy or the debate on crime and punishment. Indeed, the modern prison, despite 150 years of 'monotonous critique', as Michel Foucault put it, has not only endured but expanded to become materially and ideologically critical in the remorseless struggle to enforce law and maintain order. The institution's presence on the landscape of British society appears to be so deeply embedded that it has become almost naturalised in popular consciousness and state discourse as an immutable barrier, which despite crises and contradictions protects the law-abiding from the swamping encroachment of the desperate and degenerate in the same way that it was thought to protect the respectable from the ravages of first the parasitic delinquent, and then the dangerous classes in the nineteenth century (Garland, 1985). This conception of the prison has continued into the late twentieth century. Whatever social index is taken - the rate of imprisonment, numbers detained, expenditure, time served or judicial sentencing patterns - the prison, despite the occasional drop in the average daily population, is on a relentlessly expansionist course.

This perception was confirmed in 1991 by the former Home Secretary, Kenneth Baker. In an unwitting affirmation of Foucault's maxim that the prison 'is always offered as its own remedy' for its internal problems, Baker pointed to the steps involved in his government's 'programme of prison reform'. In England and Wales this included raising expenditure to £1.4 billion in 1992-93, recruiting an extra 4,100 prison officers and opening thirteen new prisons bv January 1994 at a cost of £900 million (Hansard, 1991, col. 168). Expenditure on law and order in general was expected to rise by 11 per cent in 1992-93 taking it up to £6 billion, still a clear exception to the prudent monetarist axe which successive Conservative governments have taken to public spending as the austere prerequisite for the economic, political and ideological resurrection of the nation. There has been a parallel growth in the range of alternatives to custody, which was supplemented in October 1992 by curfew orders and the cybernetic electronic tag (Muncie, 1990; Vass, 1990). By the year 2000 the number of prisoners will have increased by 25 per cent, reaching 57,500 in England and Wales. This figure includes a 44 per cent increase in the remand population (Home Office 1992, Table i)

Abolitionism also appears to have been further weakened by the state's strategy for reform, developed in the wake of the furious demonstrations by prisoners in the mid-1980's. Within this discourse the mistakes of the past have been recognised and prison regimes will be modified so that the disasters of the 1980's, such as those at Strange-ways (in Manchester, England) and Peterhead (in Scotland) will never be repeated. Even those on the left who might be broadly sympathetic to abolitionists have been highly critical, describing their 'anarcho-communist' position as 'preoccupied with abolishing or minimising state intervention rather than attempting to make it more effective, responsive and accountable' (Matthews, 1989, p. 5).

This paper will challenge this pessimistic reading of abolitionism by exploring three themes. First, I want to analyse the theoretical and political contribution of British abolitionists and to illustrate the hegemonic impact of this contribution on the traditional, more conservative reform lobby in this country. Second, the paper will explore the specificity of abolitionist thought in Britain and will illustrate the sociological influences on abolitionists here which took them along a different theoretical and political path to abolitionists in other countries. Finally, the paper will focus on the state of British prisons today and will discuss the reforms now being proposed to alleviate the perennial and debilitating crisis in the system. I will argue that these reforms will do little to alter 'the fiasco' that is the prison system (Mathiesen, 1990, p. 140). The paper concludes by reasserting the need for an abolitionist perspective in which the starting-point for changing prisons is changing the inequality in power, both at the micro and macro levels, in a society that is deeply and increasingly divided along the fault lines of class, gender, race and sexuality.

ORIGINS 1970-80

Willem de Haan's recent overview of abolitionism provides a useful starting-point for tracing its development in Europe and North America. It emerged at the end of the igGos as part of a destructuring movement whose main objective 'was to soften the suffering which society inflicts on its prisoners' (de Haan, 1991, p. 204). Since then abolitionism has developed along a number of different dimensions. Theoretically, it has rejected the claims made by defenders of the conventional criminal justice system that it protects people and controls crime. The prison is 'counter productive, difficult to control and [is] itself a major social problem', and crime should be understood as a complex, socially constructed phenomenon which 'serves to maintain political power relations and lends legitimacy to the expansion of the crrne control apparatus and the intensification of surveillance and control'. Strategies such as redress, compensation and reconciliation need to be introduced into a decentralised criminal justice system. Politically, abolitionism has called for the 'fundamental reform of the penal system [which] presupposes not only a radical change of the existing power structure but also of the dominant culture'. Finally, social problems, conflicts and troubles should be taken seriously bvit not as crime. This means arguing for 'social policy rather than crime control policy' within a framework of 'decriminalisation, depenalis-ation, destigmatisation, decentralisation and deprofessionalisation' (de Haan, 1991, pp. 205-14).

This general history of abolitionism's development is, I think, well known. However, there has been much less discussion about how-abolitionists have operated within the specific context of British politics, the issues they have confronted and perhaps most importantly, the nature of the interventions they and other radical prisoners' rights organisations have made in the last twenty years. Close examination of these issues highlights a number of significant theoretical, political and strategic differences between abolitionism in this country and elsewhere.

The first abolitionist group, Radical Alternatives to Prison (RAP), was established in Britain in 1970. As Mick Ryan has noted, RAP's initial position on prisons was straightforward: it was out to abolish them. For the group reform was highly problematic; 'by improving conditions prisons are made more acceptable, they are legitimised in the public mind' (Ryan, 1978, p. 138). It is important to recognise, however, that despite this hard-line position RAP was involved from (he beginning in a series of campaigns around specific issues. As I noted above, this point has rarely been discussed in the literature on abolitionism, yet it is critical for understanding the influence of British abolitionist thought and the nature of its political and humanitarian concerns.

In May 1971, RAP convened a conference on women in prison. From this meeting a campaign was organised against the rebuilding of Holloway women's prison as a secure hospital which would have minimal custodial facilities. There were demonstrations and exhibitions and a pamphlet, Alternatives to Holloway, was published in May 1972. The pamphlet pointed to the facts of female crime and argued that too many women were remanded unnecessarily in custody, that many offences could be dealt with by other means, and that women should not be imprisoned for offences such as alcoholism, child cruelty and petty theft. Instead, RAP suggested that community-based projects should be introduced which would 'make prison for women seem irrelevant'. The new Holloway was a £6 million 'folly' which would detain women 'unnecessarily labelled as criminal and then treat them in an institutional setting which was almost bound to fail' (Ryan, 1978, pp. 102-5).

What is interesting, I think, is the outcome of the campaign. At one level, it could be judged to have failed as the prison was rebuilt, though it is worth noting that it did nothing to alleviate the problems of confined women in the ensuing years. The repressive nature of the regime, particularly the notorious Ci wing, the 'Muppet House', resulted in a series of gruesome self-injuries as women responded to the particular pains of imprisonment they endured and the patriarchal discourses which underpinned diem (Padel and Stevenson, 1988, p. 72). At another level, 'there is very little doubt that the campaign made the problem of women in prison more visible that it had been in the past' (Ryan, 1978, p. 106). This visibility was to be reinforced and sustained over the next fifteen years, first in the proliferation of academic work in the area (Carlen, 1983; Dobash, Dobash and Gutteridgc, 1986); second, through the formation of the pressure group Women in Prison in 1983; and finally in the impact that these early campaigns had on the traditional reform groups, who had previously ignored this issue.

Ryan also points to a second early campaign which was mounted against the notorious psychiatric Control Units, secretly opened by the Home Office in July 1974 to discipline those labelled as subversive trouble-makers. Removed from the general population, they were kept in strict isolation twenty-three hours a day for ninety days, followed by a second ninety-day period when they were allowed to mix with; others in the Unit. If an individual prisoner broke any prison, rule, however minor, he went back to day one, stage one, to start again.

It is important to recognise that RAP campaigned for the closure of the Units alongside other, more traditional reform groups, including the government-sponsored National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders and the Howard League for Penal Reform. In October 1975 it was announced that the Units were to be discontinued. In one sense, this could be seen as a victory both for interventionist politics and for RAP's uncompromising position. On the other hand, as Ryan notes, the extent to which the campaign's pressure moved government policy 'is genuinely difficult to say since what actually happens inside our prisons is surrounded by secrecy, a secrecy which is well-served by the ambiguity of official statements' (Ryan, 1978, p. 137).

These initial campaigns were followed by a number of others which took place against a background of an ever-deepening crisis in Britain's prisons (Fitzgerald and Sim, 1982). They included highlighting the use of drugs to control prisoners, pointing to the role of the Prison Medical Sendee in this control, defending the philosophy and practices of the Barlinnie Special Unit and establishing alternatives to custody such as the Newham Alternative Project, which showed 'the possibilities of achieving genuinely humane as well as potentially negating reforms with the most limited resources' (Cohen, 1980, p. 6). In January 1979 RAP began publishing its journal, The Abolitionist, which was to run until 1987. Its first editorial pointed out that while the organisation did not have a blueprint for the future, it did believe that its:

ideas about and approach towards antisocial behaviour (as opposed to 'crime') arc much more relevant and credible than the established logic which reflects and only serves to perpetuate an unequal and exploitative social system. It follows that we seek to remove such sentiments from the ephemeral regions they tend to inhabit and translate them into an effective force for social change.
(The Abolitionist, No. i, p. i)
This editorial position, which came very close to that of European abolitionism, was not to be sustained. By the beginning of the 1980s RAP, while still maintaining that radical structural change was the key to dealing with crime and punishment, nonetheless underwent some important changes both in personnel and in its theoretical position, which in turn had repercussions for its political strategy. If the 1980s was to be the decade of law and order, arguably it was also the decade in which a more theoretically sophisticated and politically astute organisation made a significant impact on many traditionalists involved in the debates around penal policy.

The refinement in RAP's position took place against an intensification in the prison crisis which I mentioned earlier. The interlocking nature of the crisis was apparent in the overcrowded and appalling conditions in short-term prisons, in the challenges to the state's definition of penal truth mounted by radical prisoners' rights organisations, in the violent confrontations in long-term male prisons, and in the vociferous, widespread industrial action taken by prison officers. These, in turn, were underpinned by a more general crisis of penal legitimacy (Fitzgerald and Sim, 1982). More widely, the election of the new Conservative government in May 1979 underlined the collapse of the social democratic consensus, the emergence of a strong state and the consolidation of the new right as the hegemonic bloc in society, held there by the ideological cement of authoritarian populism (Hall, 1988). At the same time, those social movements which emerged at the end of the igGos and which stood outside of both organised left and state-defined political action had also consolidated their position, competing with and contradicting dominant discourses surrounding race, gender, sexuality and ecology (Gilroy, 1987).

RAP's response to these profound events was outlined in The Abolitionist by two members of its editorial collective. First, Tony Ward, the journal's editor, dealt with the perennial issue of reform and argued that the immediate priority was to 'gain support for reforms of the penal system which while making it more humane will also show up its inherent limitations and contradictions' (Ward, 1982, p. 22, emphasis in the original). Ward also wrote the editorial outlining the organisation's goals. He maintained that while many reforms amounted to 'a sugar coating on a toxic pill', it was nonetheless important to argue for the immediate reform and abolition of particular parts of the system, including the use of drugs as control mechanisms, solitary confinement, the system of security classification, secrecy and censorship. The Barlinnie Special Unit indicated, for WTard, what could be achieved by a 'less authoritative and restrictive approach'. He concluded by differentiating the politics of RAP from those in the traditional reform lobby, so that while many of RAP's medium term goals were shared by the traditionalists, they did not share 'our political outlook':
RAP's fundamental purpose is, through research and propaganda to educate the public about the true nature, as we see it, of imprisonment and the criminal law; to challenge the prevailing attitudes to crime and delinquency; and to counter the ideology of law-and-order which helps to legitimate an increasingly powerful State machine' (The Abolitionist, No.12, p2).
The second article, written by Jill Box-Grainger, critically evaluated RAP's first ten years, pointed to the recent sociological and political influences on the organisation and outlined RAP's developing strategy for changing prisons and the wider criminal justice process. This strategy included supporting 'negative' reforms such as disbanding the Prison Medical Service, prohibiting the use of drugs to control prisoners, removing the disciplinary role from prison Boards of Visitors, abolishing parole and introducing greater accountability through ending prison secrecy and the censorship of mail. These reforms were underpinned by the demand for a moratorium on prison building, a reduction in maximum sentences, curtailing the power of scntencers, decriminalisation of certain offences and the implementation of radical alternatives to prison. Finally, and contrary to the ill-informed assertion that radicals have not been concerned about victims of crime, she pointed to RAP's call for a re-evaluation of the 'significance of criminal restitution [and of] the relationship between the offender and the victim' (Box-Grainger, 1982, pp. 17-18).

The article then moved on to discuss the perennial and key issues of serious offenders and dangerousness. This debate had been fuelled by two developments. First, there was the apparent bifurcation in llrhish penal policy which was leading to an expansion in the numbers and rate of turnover in short-term prisons, and the simultaneous increase in the numbers and length of detention in long-term prisons. Second, (he deba(e was increasingly influenced by (he philosophical, epistemological and political questions raised by the women's movement, particularly the demand to be protected from 'oppressive and gratuitous street and domestic violence'. RAP therefore was '(quite healthily) ... forced to consider "what should be done" with the serious offender if it is to be at all responsible to popular demands (albeit that RAP continues to underline the fact that serious offenders constitute a very small proportion of all offenders)' (Box-Grainger, 1982, p. 21).

The organisation also began to reassess its position on radical alternatives, particularly the place of 'the community' within the framework of an alternative model of justice. Constructing the problem of prison abolition through community alternatives assumed a homogeneity of values within society in general and in working-class communities in particular. It was therefore important to distinguish between (he long-term interests of working-class people, where there 'may be enormous similarity', and short-term interests, which were 'frequently antagonistic'. This had serious implications for women: '[community] has always involved the re-assertion of the role of the family, the basic unit of the community and ultimately the containment of women in the home. That in the short term the interests of a son may be in conflict with a mother's own interests is not only a theoretical problem but potentially a barrier against "community" support for radical alternatives' (Box-Grainger, 1982, p. 16).

RAP's consideration of this issue was underlined by the formation of a Sex Offences Group within the organisation. The group maintained that it was hazardous to attempt to construct a definition of dangerous individuals. Rather it argued for a policy of exemplary or retributive punishment 'as an appropriate response to sow offences. The important thing then is the viciousness of the act not the actor . . .' (The Abolitionist, No. 10, p. 4, emphasis in the original). It also argued for a radical restructuring of both sentencing policy and wider social relationships. Again influenced by the impact of feminism, the group confronted the sentencing issue in its evidence to the Criminal Law Revision Committee's Working Paper on Sexual Offences. It asked 'how can the law emphasise the unacceptable nature of rape and indecent assault without resorting to excessively long prison sentences for rapists who are not representative of the majority of those who rape?' Additionally, could sentencing protect women from rape at all? The group made ten proposals to deal with sentencing and imprisoned rapists and concluded:

"RAP recognizes that the above proposals are only a brief outline of a possible sentencing practice for convicted rapists, where all custodial sentences are shorter and where custody is not so debasing and destructive as at present. And again we would stress that this type of sentencing can only be effective if it is used against a background of real equality of opportunity for women - an equality that offers women economic independence, political, ideological and sexual determination."
(The Abolitionist, No. 10, pp. 6?7)

It is important to recognise that the change in RAP's strategy and political orientation was mirrored in a series of more general theoretical debates that occurred at the beginning of the 1980s. In particular, the question of reform as initially discussed in Mathiesen's seminal Politics of Abolition (1974) was addressed as a theoretical and political problem. In 1982, Mike Fitzgerald and I, while arguing for an abolitionist position as the answer to the enduring crisis in British prisons, also maintained that the 'positive' and 'negative' distinction made by Mathiesen did not address the subtleties and ramifications of particular reforms. For us 'reform by its very nature contain both positive and negative possibilities' (Fitzgerald and Sim, 1982, p. 164, emphasis in the original). In 1985, Dave Brown and Russell Hogg developed a similar critique. Pointing to the issue of legal rights, they asked if introducing due process was a positive or negative reform. The answer was not straightforward:
"reform measures or lines of advance cannot necessarily be adequately specified or evaluated a priori by reference either to some positive/ negative calculus or to some general theory of law. . . state . . . capital . . . legitimation . . . legal right etc. Ii is not necessary to embrace (lie ambiguous assumptions of 'the justice model' . . . or 'rights' discourse recognise that the introduction of legal representation, procedural and appeals rights into internal disciplinary hearings presents a possibility of 'bringing power to particular account' . . . On the other hand detailed practices of discipline and normalisation, surveillance, differentiation, classification, assessment, segregation, deprivation within the site of the prison are not adequately contested simply through attempts to 'legalise' the prison.
(Brown and Hogg, 1985, p.73)
Brown and Hogg developed this analysis in a number of other papers which raised a series of theoretical questions about abolitionism. They pointed out that abolitionism tended to posit common political interests, usually built on class affiliation, between the unpro-ductivc (prisoners) and radical fractions of the working class. There were problems with constructing a unified class subject in this way in (hat this construction underestimated power networks which divided, differentiated and classified populations on the 'basis of sexual differentiation or grids of normality, age, health, etc.' (Brown and Hogg, 10,0,2). This differentiation had real effects: 'the success of the prison and other agencies such as the police at constituting an "alien and dangerous" criminal class is real and cannot be reversed by a simple assertion of common class interests. It is always a question of co/M/n;r(-m^allianccs often in very specific, localised and short-term ways. There is no necessary underlying unity waiting to be recognised' (Brown and Hogg, 10,0,2, pp. 154-5, emphasis in the original).

Tony Ward has also argued that within the specific context of Britain, struggles around and resistance to penal power are better understood by reference to Foucault's 'oppositional model of action' rather than Mathiesen's concept of 'contradiction'. He points to the strategy of opposition developed in the probation service and maintains that the clear division within abolitionist thought between control and welfare agencies, while 'theoretically attractive', is 'politically untenable in Britain'. The largest support for abolitionism has come from the voluntary agencies, social workers and probation officers whose everyday activity 'inescapably involves mixing care and control. To present these people with a stark choice between providing "pure" control within the penal system or "pure" help outside it could simply play into the hands of those in authority who are eager to reassert the importance of control as the system's primary role" (Ward, 1991, p. 161).
Along with Mick Ryan, Ward has also highlighted other theoretical currents which influenced abolitionism in the 1980's, including feminist theory and the campaign around rape launched by Women Against Rape. It was from this 'difficult but productive debate' that a range of other questions arose concerning the role of the state, the relationship between capitalism and patriarchy and, following Foucault, the problem of denning the nature of power and crimes of the powerful:

No longer did the world appear to be neatly divided between the 'powerful' and the 'powerless', nor were 'crimes of the powerful' the sole prerogative of the ruling class, once the concept was extended (o take account of the power of men over women, of white people over black and of adults over children. (RAP was one of the first groups in the lobby to engage seriously with the issue of child sexual abuse).
(Ryan and Ward, 1990, p. 7)

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